Launchpad: Boulder

Is there a better place than CU Boulder to learn the art of innovation or the mindset of the entrepreneur? 

With a trophy case overflowing with “most entrepreneurial” and “best in innovation” awards, nearly $2 billion in economic impact from university commercialization efforts, and the recent Innovation and Economic Prosperity University designation from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the university and community make a convincing case for entrepreneurial students, faculty and community partners who want to turn their ideas into reality. 

The Front Range innovation ecosystem—with CU Boulder at its heart—is a powerful driver of economic impact for Colorado and the nation. From entrepreneurial curriculum and training for students and faculty, to resources like workspaces, pitch competitions and a community mentor network, the university is fostering entrepreneurial mindsets on and off campus, positioning people to create impact far beyond the university. 

With early support from university coursework and resources, and subsequent boosts from the surrounding entrepreneurial community—think national labs, world-class mentors, accelerators, incubators, venture capitalists and investment firms—innovative ideas and discoveries in CU Boulder labs are rapidly developed and delivered into the hands of the people who can benefit the most.

Stride Tech team award

Innovation mentor and founder

Hands-on experience and student startups

In 2019, a record 120 teams—most led by student innovators—participated in the university’s 11th annual New Venture Challenge (NVC), the region’s premier entrepreneurial startup competition. Student innovators participate in entrepreneurial workshops and activities all year, including collaborating with community mentors, with an eye on nabbing a spot in the NVC Championships. 

A panel of judges composed of local venture capitalists and startup founders awarded undergraduate engineering team Stride Tech $100,000 toward its invention, a technological solution for safer senior care. 

The newly crowned champs can follow the lead of past NVC winners like Specdrums and Statehill, who blended the university’s entrepreneurial approaches and offerings with community resources to create impact beyond the traditional boundaries of education and research. Both budding ventures were acquired by global industry leaders shortly after leveraging a full slate of the university’s academic and experiential opportunities and shining on the NVC finals stage. 

But the action isn’t just for NVC alums, and the stakes aren’t always measured in traditional startup currency. 

For example, an all-female CU Boulder team earned the 2019 Most Innovative Award for its project in the NASA BIG Idea Challenge, which sought innovative ideas for the design and operation of a Mars greenhouse. 

In another opportunity, 50-plus students in the Designing for Defense course offered through the Technology, Cybersecurity and Policy Program pitched ideas for how the U.S. armed forces could approach emerging national security challenges. The event provided teams with experience and feedback, which proved especially useful for the CharloT (Characterizing the Internet of Things) team. The team’s new machine learning approach for identifying different kinds of internet-enabled devices on a network earned them a coveted opportunity to present to Founders Fund, a leading venture capital firm based in San Francisco.

Faculty innovations with real-world impact

The Lab Venture Challenge (LVC), an annual grant competition, offers essential funding for faculty inventors seeking to quickly translate their inventions into impact.

Faculty can first learn the ropes through new efforts like a commercialization academy and a “research to market” program. Once presentations and products achieve the requisite level of polish, they are tested at the LVC, where judges from the entrepreneurial community award grants of up to $125,000 each for innovations demonstrating high commercial potential, a clear path to a compelling market and strong scientific support. 

Past winner Professor Xuedong Liu spun his invention into a new company, OnKure Therapeutics. The startup was co-founded with local serial entrepreneur Tony Piscopio, and after successful fundraising and preclinical collaborations, OnKure’s cancer drug is now in human trials at CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus. 

This year, the university also launched the statewide Destination Startup showcase event, which featured 24 ventures spun out of universities and federal labs across Colorado. Pitches to local investors and venture capitalists from both coasts sparked multiple investment discussions and offers that could accelerate these early companies to market. 

Is the growing portfolio of commercialization support paying off in getting faculty innovations to the wider world? In a big way, it turns out. 

The domestic economic impact of commercialization activities at CU Boulder over the past five years amounted to a staggering $1.9 billion, according to a recent report conducted by the Business Research Division of the Leeds School of Business. The economic impact in Colorado alone was estimated at $1.2 billion.

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